by Sarah Beavers, Messenger Staff Writer
There are some big changes coming to Shenanigans Restaurant in downtown Sewanee, and “they are all positive, exciting new efforts as part of the natural progression of Shenanigans,” said Bill Elder, owner of the 45-year-old restaurant.
At the core of these upcoming initiatives are a few key new team members: catering and events coordinator Sunshine Heath; Nalin King, a pastry and dessert specialist; and chef George Stevenson, C’90.
George is no stranger to the food community on the Mountain. Sitting at the comfort of the L-bar at the restaurant, George recounts his first experience working at Shenanigans, back in the late 1980s.
“Todd, C’87, and Katherine, C’88, Kaderabek, the third owners, would not hire me,” said George. “I began picking up my friend’s shifts. Todd saw me one night and wanted to know what I was doing down there. I told him I was working for Will Houseman.”
“I was hired immediately on the spot,” said George.
George has worked all the jobs one could imagine at Shenanigans, opening, closing, general prep, working the grill, making sandwiches, and running the register.
Legend has it he could pour three pitchers of beer at a time while answering the phone to take an order, and barking out instructions to those working in the front. His made-from-scratch soups were sublime.
He also worked at Shenanigans with another two owners. “I came with the purchase of the building on a couple of occasions,” said George.
Cooking is in George’s blood. He said he got his love of food from his mother, “who is an extraordinary cook.”
Following his passion to work as a professional chef, he left the safety of his home in Sewanee to attend the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt. He graduated from there in 1998.
“I enjoy the energy of working in an active business, being able to make decisions and the pressure of working in a kitchen,” said George. “Attending culinary school seemed to be the logical next step.”
He then moved to Seattle, Wash., where he had an internship with the Sheraton Hotel and James Beard Award winner Monique Barbeau. He worked for a number of restaurants including Boom Noodle, Luc Bistro and Bis on Main, plus catering gigs in the Woodinville wine community and at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery Amphitheater. He also picked up some prep work at another restaurant during the week, where he made the soups. “They were very well received,” said George.
Soup is one of his favorite things to make, and the key is in the stock. “Who does not like a veal demi-glace?” asked George.
“It does take a certain talent to make a pot of soup, and it is what you do up front that makes a recipe work,” said George. “You cannot put a bunch of stuff into a buffalo chopper and expect to get good results.”
After years in the Seattle food scene, he traveled for a while before returning to Sewanee in 2012. He worked as the head chef at Pearl’s Fine Dining and then at the Sewanee Inn.
After George left the Sewanee Inn, Bill called George to see if he was interested in coming back to Shenanigans. “Bill wanted to see if I would help with some new concepts at the restaurant. Plus, work on existing food quality and what we eventually want to do upstairs.”
“Everyone is familiar with George’s immense talents and his contributions to the food community,” said Bill. “I was fearful he would go back to a big city market. I started talking to him about what it would mean for him to stay in Sewanee. We discussed the Shenanigans’ food truck, and dug a little bit deeper about the concept for upstairs. Why shouldn’t that space be food related?”
“Another thing is George is coming back to his roots. It’s my hope that the upstairs space at Shenanigans gives George his next step as a chef,” said Bill. “He’ll have a space where he can experiment with a number of things, and he’ll also be heavily involved with our new catering arm. We’ve batted around several food ideas for the upstairs, and we’re in the process of working those into various concepts. The end goal there is having a consistently open space upstairs with some really great food.”
Bill and George both agree there will be some improvements to the existing downstairs Shenanigans menu in the future. “But nothing is going away,” said Bill. “You will still be able to get a Shenaniwich, a bowl of peanut chicken soup, a patty melt on a paper plate, or that all-important spicy turkey melt.”
“We’ll be going through all the current recipes and tweaking them with George to make sure they are the best they can be and up to the quality everyone knows at Shenanigans,” said Bill.
George agrees about getting back to Shenanigans’ original food roots. “Shenanigans is a home to everybody whether you live here or go to school here,” said George. “I enjoy cooking food for people and the importance of doing that well.”
George starts to work again at Shenanigans on Monday.
“The first thing I am going to do is make a turkey melt,” he said.